Review: Lent

This review contains spoilers.

There’s an uncomfortable moment early on in Jo Walton’s most-recent-but-one novel Lent when its protagonist, the Dominican monk Girolamo Savanorola (a real figure in Italian Renaissance politics), administers the last rites to Angelo, tutor to the children of a local member of the Medici family. Girolamo is “disgusted” to hear Angelo confess that he’s had sex with men; disgusted, the scene implies, in a way he wouldn’t have been had Angelo confessed multiple affairs with women. As a queer reader, that disgust is a visceral shock; it’s profoundly uncomfortable to encounter such views in a character generally portrayed as sympathetic, kind and liberal (for a monk).

The sense of discomfort this scene engenders illustrates what I was talking about earlier this week about anachronistic mindsets in historical fantasy (and non-speculative historical fiction too). One of the great strengths of Lent is that it enters wholeheartedly into the Renaissance mindset. Girolamo, head of his monastery and passionate ascetic, has the unique ability to see and banish demons, a fact everyone around him treats as largely unremarkable; because, from a Renaissance standpoint, demons are a fact of life, as indisputably real as Newtonian physics are today. It’s telling that I thought of the first half of Lent as basically a realist Renaissance novel; that’s how unremarkable the demons are.

Girolamo’s homophobia, discomfiting though it is, is part of this realism; it’s a sign of the novel’s willingness to commit fully to its premise. You can’t have the demons without the period’s concomitant horror of sensuality and sexuality; in fact it’s pretty clear that Walton’s demons, which all have huge genitalia or are covered in breasts, that sort of thing, are manifestations of that horror. Girolamo’s attitude towards queer sex isn’t one that Walton shares, but it’s key to understanding what kind of person he is and what sort of cultural context he operates in; in short it’s key to the effect the novel’s trying to achieve. It’s an indication that Walton isn’t afraid to make the reader uncomfortable, to encounter the past as another country; Lent is not a warm cosy bath of materialist historical fantasy we’re going to be allowed to sink into.

(I’m not saying here that all historical narratives about queer characters, real or imagined, need to be relentless rosters of homophobia, nor that queer-friendly attitudes are always unrealistic when projected into the past; I’m simply trying to illustrate here how this specific choice works in this specific text.)

Why is this moral and cultural realism important? About halfway through the novel the text becomes significantly more metaphysical than we’ve been led to expect (even given we are reading about a deeply learned monk in a world full of demons): after a brief time running Florence as a godly republic, Girolamo is executed and ends up not in heaven but in hell. He is himself a demon, doomed to return over and over again to Earth for his torture. From that point on we might expect the text to ask us whether he can be redeemed, and how; and it does, to an extent. But a more pressing concern for Girolamo – who is the only person who realises that his life is looping again and again – is often how he can best help his friends and serve God, given the incontrovertible fact of his damnation. The philosophical argument Walton embarks upon in this second half of the book – an argument that touches on questions of responsibility, duty and sacrifice – is profoundly rooted in Renaissance mores and understandings of the world; it relies on our acceptance, even if only hypothetically, of truths about the world that were seen as incontrovertible in the Renaissance period. It’s an argument that would be impossible, or at least very difficult, to make in its current form without that framing.

It’s clear that Walton’s main interest here lies in structure and theme, not prose; the novel isn’t badly written, but nor is the writing particularly revelatory, and in fact it’s occasionally downright clumsy. Being someone who reads for structure and theme rather than prose, I can forgive that for the novel’s genuine, and mostly successful, attempts at estrangement; it’s a serious piece of work that’s doing things not many SFF novels will even try (and here I bemoan once again the lack of speculative novels that look seriously at religion and faith). I don’t think I would like everything I read to be like Lent; but I am glad to have read it.

Review: In the Vanishers’ Palace

This review contains spoilers.

It can be fairly difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening at any particular point in Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 novella In the Vanishers’ Palace. Her prose is so rooted in her protagonist’s head, and her far-future world so wrong-footingly unfamiliar, that we frequently end up reading passages like this, where it’s hard to visualise what’s really going on:

Up close, the pillar was nothing like stone, more like polished metal given a slightly different sheen. Odd rectangular patterns were carved within it, parallel lines splitting around darker islands of pooled silver, converging towards squat nexuses in haphazard fashion. It looked like a child’s drawing, random lines and circles, but nevertheless it didn’t feel random, more like something that had its own logic…

The pillar in question is in the titular Vanishers’ palace, whence our protagonist Yȇn is taken after her mother summons the dragon-spirit Vu Côn to heal the daughter of a village elder. There is always a price for miracles, after all. Initially believing she’ll be eaten, or tortured then eaten, Yȇn is in fact tasked with looking after Vu Côn’s children Liên and Thông, to teach them ethics and etiquette and duty, for reasons that will become clear later in the narrative.

It’s a slantwise retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”, although I didn’t actually realise this until I’d finished reading it. Thematically, the two stories share an interest in morality – “Beauty and the Beast” is explicitly a didactic moral tale about what women should look for in a husband, whereas part of Yȇn’s job is to teach her charges morality through literature – and in filial piety: you’ll remember that the whole reason Beauty ends up in the Beast’s palace is because she loves her father too much to let him die, and the same is pretty much true of Yȇn, albeit her concern is for her elderly mother. The science-fictional Vanishers’ palace in which Vu Côn lives is every bit as fantastical as the Beast’s palace, capable of producing perfect fruit and other delicious foods from scratch (or, rather, from molecules, one assumes) and equipped with a vast and miraculous library.

But of course de Bodard somewhat complicates, interrogates, her original’s simplistic morality. “Beauty and the Beast” is pretty nakedly a bourgeois-capitalist fantasy: Beauty, daughter of a family down on their luck (although not so down on their luck that they cannot keep servants, apparently), attains wealth, comfort and rank by recognising her husband’s virtue. The magical palace is a manifestation of that wealth, able to provide Beauty with rich food without expending any visible effort. De Bodard’s Vanishers’ palace, meanwhile, is a different proposition altogether: the Vanishers being a godlike race who took the world apart, poisoning the land, bequeathing horrible gene-altering viruses to humanity and bending the laws of physics before, as their name suggests, disappearing somewhere nobody can reach them. The price of the untainted food their palace can produce, then, is precisely the price all but the richest of us are currently paying under capitalism: ruined fields, deadly disease, and – the central theme of In the Vanishers’ Palace, this – a cultural system that values humans according to their usefulness.

This last is where the theme of filial piety ties in. Vu Côn’s idea of responsible parenthood – of responsible guardianship not only of Liên, Thông and Yȇn but also of the hundreds of sick people occupying the makeshift hospital she’s set up in the palace – is to make decisions for her charges instead of telling them what’s up and allowing them to choose what they want. It’s this that drives much of the interpersonal tension in the novel; which is to say, the tension between Vu Côn and Yȇn, who are immediately attracted to each other despite the power differential. It’s also a complication of the original text’s straightforward view on parental relationships and traditional authority: that straightforward view, de Bodard posits, leads to the infantilisation of children and ultimately to their dehumanisation.

Back, then, to that labyrinthine prose; which I think is echoing on a technical level de Bodard’s thematic complication of “Beauty and the Beast” – that is to say, disturbing our expectations of what fairy tales are supposed to do, viz., work as clear, readable, didactic texts. In the Vanishers’ Palace does, I think, have a clear message – “don’t treat people as things” – and its disease-riddled post-apocalyptic setting obviously has clear, almost uncanny parallels with our own climate-changed, coronavirus-haunted reality. But, unlike its source text, it’s also more than its message and its relevance: in the impossible spaces of the Vanishers’ palace and inside Yȇn’s own head there are Gothic enormities. This is one of those books that feels larger than its actual page count (198, if you’re interested) would suggest. It’s messy and a little inelegant and sometimes you have to read back a few pages to work out what’s happening. But also? Those imperfections are what makes it fascinating.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a brief, bittersweet story about power, misogyny and the weight of history. Shortly after the death of the Empress In-yo, the cleric Chih, on their way to the capital to welcome the new empress, learns that the sites she had put under imperial lock have now been declassified. On a whim, they decide to turn aside to Lake Scarlet, the place where In-yo once lived in exile; there, they find Rabbit, In-yo’s old servant. While Chih works to index and record the contents of the house at Lake Scarlet (assisted by their assistant, the neixan Almost Brilliant), Rabbit tells them tales of the empress in her exile, a young bride from a neighbouring country discarded as soon as she had given the emperor a son. How does that lost castaway become the powerful and venerable Empress of Salt and Fortune?

Vo’s novella reminds me in some respects of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor: both texts are about young people, exiles, climbing to ultimate power in foreign courts. I think Vo’s book has more teeth, however, and more to say: whereas Addison’s novel is mostly concerned with the ways in which its protagonist strives to be a kind ruler – thereby obscuring the inherent cruelty of monarchical rule – Vo’s is fully aware of the ruthlessness In-yo must show to survive and thrive in her position, and of the sacrifices she must demand of her servants. In-yo says to Rabbit at a pivotal moment:

“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is also more formally ambitious than Addison’s novel: Rabbit is not a reliable narrator (unlike Addison’s third-person omniscient voice), she misdirects, leaves things unspoken and implied. This is, I think, a form of resistance to the sweep of history and thus of patriarchal power: by keeping parts of her relationship with In-yo hidden from Chih, the empire’s official archivist, Rabbit chooses to leave the historical record incomplete, troubling history’s claim to accuracy and authority.

Needless to say, this kind of thing is very much My Jam, and if it sounds like yours you should probably pick up The Empress of Salt and Fortune. It’s sharp enough and icy enough and of-the-moment enough that I’ll be surprised if it’s not on at least one awards ballot next year.

Review: The Return of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile’s The Return of Heroic Failures is a bathroom book. You know the type: collections of vaguely humorous anecdotes, for a certain value of “humour”, with which to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon or a visit to a relative whose taste in reading material is very different to yours. A successor to The Book of Heroic Failures, it contains stories of general human incompetence, neglect and plain foolishness. Categories include “The Least Successful Shipbuilding”, in which an Italian firm builds four ships for the Malaysian navy before discovering that the only way to the sea lies past a bridge none of them can fit underneath; “The Least Successful Attempt to Murder A Spouse”, concerning a man who makes seven unsuccessful attempts on his wife’s life without her even noticing; and “The Least Appropriate Speech”, in which a member of the House of Lords speaks for five minutes on entirely the wrong subject.

Having been published in 1988, some of the book’s humour is a little off-colour, shall we say, although I don’t remember anything particularly egregious, just the general background assumption that you the reader are a straight white male Westerner that you often get in this kind of book. As for the quality of its humour: I laughed a couple of times, but it’s more “mildly amusing” than “side-splittingly hilarious”. (But see my previous posts re my sense of humour, which is not highly developed.) Basically, it’s fine for a few hours’ entertainment, but I wouldn’t recommend shelling out more than a couple of quid for it in a charity shop.

Review: The Starless Sea

Published almost exactly a year ago, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea appeared on shelves eight years after her rapturously received debut The Night Circus. It’s an altogether more complex and grown-up novel than its predecessor, and yet ultimately I think the two books share a certain stasis, an escapist bent that stops them saying anything truly important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of The Starless Sea is Zachary, a gay Black grad student studying psychology and gender in video game design – although, when the novel opens just before the start of term, he’s busy procrastinating his studies by spending days in the library’s fiction section, rereading childhood classics. That’s where he discovers Sweet Sorrows, a wine-coloured volume that lists no author or publication information, but which does narrate a significant episode in Zachary’s own childhood – a moment when he found a door leading to wonders and walked away. We have just read this story: it appears at the beginning of the novel, alongside two other short tales that are also included in Sweet Sorrows, one of which tells of a magical underground library and a strange initiation ceremony. We conclude, correctly, that this library is what lay behind the door Our Protagonist did not open.

Zachary is understandably a little freaked out by an episode from his own life that he’s never told anyone about appearing in a library book, and after some research into where the book may have come from he chases a tenuous lead to a literary party in New York. There, a handsome storyteller named Dorian convinces him to steal another book from a powerful organisation, before sending him through another painted door into that underground library: a Harbor on the Starless Sea, stuffed with cats and a miraculous kitchen and, of course, more stories than you could ever count. But the Harbor’s closed for business; its heyday past; the Starless Sea is rising; and someone is shutting all the doors.

The Starless Sea is a lot more formally ambitious than The Night Circus: various fairytales and stories of the Harbor’s past weave themselves around the main narrative, and many of those tales are artefacts within the main narrative, creating an impression of endlessly recursive Story. The prose, similarly, is intensely descriptive, focusing on details of what things look and smell and taste and sound like to build a beguiling sense of place. The overall effect of structure and prose combined is to immerse you, the reader, in a kind of warm bath of story-symbology, to draw you into the heart of its metafictional world. In a sense the novel is what it describes: a cosy space to curl in, a seemingly-endless repository of story, a place composed of layer upon layer of half-familiar symbols.

It’s an enormously comforting read; particularly, I found, the first half, in which Zachary gets to explore the Harbor, accompanied by an apparently limitless supply of cats and fuelled by perfectly-baked treats available on demand. By the same token, though, I’m not sure there’s much going on beneath the novel’s obsession with material comforts. The symbols that recur throughout the narrative – hearts, bees, keys, swords, crowns and feathers – lead to nothing but themselves; as do the fairytales that loop endlessly back on themselves, weaving in and out of the main narrative. Stuff goes on, of course: Zachary and Dorian fall in love (an improvement on the white het romance at the centre of The Night Circus); a man out of time searches for his lover on the shores of the Starless Sea; the Harbor changes irrevocably. But all of this is coded as part of a great cycle; we get the sense that these are just stories repeating themselves. There is nothing truly, startlingly new in this story-world; it’s a recycled composite of childhood portal fantasies, of bookish fantasies like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, of fabulous fictional libraries like the one in Garth Nix’s Lirael, of fairy tales and stories and songs. “Arch” is the word that occurred to me while I was reading it: it feels precisely calculated to appeal to book-lovers without necessarily having anything truly urgent to say.

In that sense, it is, perhaps, the ideal pandemic read. Tapped out on real life? Sink into The Starless Sea and imagine you’re curled up in a fancy old-fashioned bedroom beside a roaring fire, no chores to do, no outside world to worry about. It is escapism in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, though, I am uneasy with the novel’s conception of what reading is for and what readers are like. The Starless Sea above all conceptualises reading as a comfortable pursuit: the Harbor is a place where all your material needs are seen to apparently magically; and, as I’ve said, the novel’s form, structure and content creates a sense of intellectual comfort, telling us familiar narratives over and over again. But reading at its best should be anything but comfortable. We should be critical readers, examining the biases of the texts we’re given; new understanding should make us uncomfortable; as readers we should be pushing the boundaries of our engagement with the world. Above all reading should not be about retreating to an ivory tower – or an ivory cavern, as the case may be – and relinquishing our duty to the world outside. To be a good reader is to take what we have learned in books and use it in our lives to build new and better things. The vision The Starless Sea offers of readers and reading is beguiling and dangerous; it is not one we should take with us into our real lives.

Review: Swordspoint

I invite you to look at this terrible cover, which graces Gollancz’s 2016 edition of Ellen Kushner’s 1987 novel Swordspoint. What does this cover say to you? To me, it says “possibly YA sword-and-sorcery novel in a cod-medieval secondary world, all characters white and straight and probably male”. The use of the adjective “swashbuckling” on the cover copy does not help.

Reader, the cover could not be more wrong. Swordspoint is in fact a fantasy of manners set in a Regency-adjacent alternate world in which the nobility settle scores using proxy duels through highly skilled swordfighters. Richard St Vier is one such fighter, commonly recognised as the best in the city; his profession gives him a certain rakish honour, while simultaneously relegating him to the lower ranks of society. Almost inevitably, he becomes embroiled in the political manoeuvrings of the upper classes, caught between the highly codified laws of the swordsman and his need to protect his lover Alec from both the seedy residents of Riverside and the vengeful nobility who live upon the Hill.

Did I mention everyone is queer?

(By “everyone” I mean “all the men” and by “queer” I mean “some flavour of bi but they all seem to love their boyfriends more than their wives”, but STILL, this is a work of fantasy published in 1987, I am amazed there are any LGBT+ characters at all.)

Although the setting is, as I’ve said, recognisably Regency-coded (I think it’s the tension between romance and respectability that does it – it’s a tension we see in lots of Jane Austen’s novels, for instance), it’s one of those rare stories that feels almost ahistorical, a thing that has come from nowhere. I’d put Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence in the same category: works that are utterly sui generis, that don’t seem to fit into any observable trend. I mean: who was even writing intricate alt-historical social novels with significant LGBT content in the 1980s?

(I’ll admit that I’m not particularly up on 1980s SFF writing, so please let me know if I’m off-base here!)

I think part of what contributes to this sense of temporal dislocation is that this isn’t even really a Regency novel; parts of it are set in the city’s seedy underbelly, where cutthroats and pickpockets lurk around every corner and the laws of polite society are turned upside down. The violence that runs rampant in Riverside, the violence by which Richard sustains his position in Riverside society, gives the lie to those laws; for it is that very violence that underpins the social hierarchy of the Hill, via the proxies of the swordsmen. When that violence spills out beyond the bounds set by the carefully codified laws of engagement by which the nobility live, we see the inherent instability on which their social and political power is founded. This isn’t typically how Regency romances work – by its very nature romance tends to be consolatory and small-c conservative, preserving the fabric of society rather than undermining it. What makes Kushner’s destabilisation of Regency romance structures so unusually powerful (as compared to something like Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, which is fun and important but doesn’t exert the same kind of murky hold on my imagination) is her naturalistic depiction of the kind of man Richard is: he’s not romanticised at all, and although he’s sympathetic in some ways (most notably in his devotion to Alec) he is ultimately still a person who’s willing to torture another human being. Kushner, in other words, goes there. Her characters are anything but swashbuckling, with all of the sanitised heroism that implies.

There is a sequel to Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, but since it was published nearly twenty years after the original I’m not sure I want to read it. In my experience worlds returned to decades after the fact tend to lose their lustre; and I wouldn’t want anything to tarnish my memory of Swordspoint‘s hypnotic, menacing power.

Review: Empress of Forever

This review contains spoilers.

The protagonist of Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever is Vivian Liao, a queer tech billionaire with the unstated aim of tearing it all down from the inside – “it” being global capitalism and the uneven distribution of power that’s associated with it. Her radicalism’s attracting the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people, though, and so she goes underground, working on a plan to exploit third-party systems her own company built in order to create the world’s first true AI. Mid-implementation, though, something…happens, and she wakes up in a posthuman far future ruled by the titular Empress, a titanic figure revered and hated in equal measure by the citizens of a galaxy who have long since achieved functional immortality by having their souls, in effect, backed up to the cloud.

In order to return to twenty-first century Earth, she reasons, she needs to find the Empress. Her companions in this adventure are Hong, a monk of the Mirrorfaith, who study the Empress’ works with an almost fanatical devotion; Zanj, a legendary pirate queen who’s been imprisoned in the heart of a star for the last three thousand years, at the Empress’ behest; and Xiara, pilot extraordinaire, Viv’s love interest and daughter of a society destroyed by, yes, the Empress.

As a novel about the posthuman, Empress of Forever is centrally concerned with the borders of the self and the edges of the human. In a universe where you can teleport to anywhere through the cloud, your body reassembled from whatever materials are handy upon arrival; where the bodies of people like Hong are filled with circuitry; where people like Xiara can bond with the mind of a ship until they forget the way back to their organic bodies; what does “human”, as a concept, actually mean? More pertinent, though, is the replicability of the self in such a universe. The novel makes extensive use of doppelgangers and doubles: it turns out, for instance, that Viv herself is the result of one of the Empress’ experiments, which involved running thousands of simulations of herself in order to find the solution to the Bleed, a phenomenon that consumes any civilisation that grows too technologically advanced. In a very real sense, then, Viv is the Empress – a realisation that forces her to grapple with her own capacity for authoritarianism. Similar doublings in the novel likewise ask the characters to reconsider their sense of self and identity in a universe that troubles the boundaries of subjectivity.

This is not especially groundbreaking stuff thematically speaking, but it works well because of Gladstone’s finely developed characterisation: Zanj and Viv in particular are nuanced and complex people who go well beyond generic stereotypes, and Empress of Forever is one of those rare genre novels that I’d say is actually more interested in its character arcs than it is in its genre trappings or plot – which, while there is a plot it’s quite episodic and, as I remarked to the Bandersnatch at the time, distinctly reminiscent of an RPG tabletop game.

Where it does fall down is that, like much of the SFF work I’ve read that deals with the posthuman (Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief series, Gladstone’s own novella co-written with Amal El-Mohtar This Is How You Lose the Time War, Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean), it fails to think – communally. What I mean by that is that although there are communities in the novel (Xiara’s clan, the Mirrorfaith, etc.), they are all predatory or threatening communities that our heroes must escape in order to continue their quest narrative. Perhaps that’s part of the point: the Empress works to restrict individual communities’ technological development in order to keep the Bleed away, and in doing so creates the kind of atomisation and mutual mistrust that also pertains under late capitalism. And there’s an argument to be made that Viv, Zanj, Hong and Xiara form a kind of found family, bringing together their different strengths and experiences to achieve their goals – a new community, an alliance against the dark. But, hmm. Ultimately the story is centred on Viv’s self-actualisation, and although it feels weird to complain about a novel doing what novels do (viz., focus on the self-actualisation of a bourgeois subject), I have this sense that literature of the posthuman has the potential to be vastly more radical than it actually is? It would be nice if these stories which are about the boundaries of the self could move away a little from their capitalistic focus on individual fulfilment. The posthuman self always seems so isolated, despite the fact that it inhabits a universe where reaching and working with others should be easier than ever.

I do want to stress that I enjoyed Empress of Forever immensely. I loved the strange, baroque universe Gladstone creates; the sharp wit of his prose, at a sentence level; its interest in deep, nuanced characterisation; its refreshing lack of a male gaze. (Viv hardly ever goes a chapter without remembering an old flame, usually one we haven’t encountered before, which some might find a bit much but which I actually kind of appreciated as an acknowledgement that queer people can have busy romantic pasts too.) It is a really strong example of its genre, and it’s an absolute pleasure to read. I just don’t think it ever manages to transcend its genre and fulfil its radical potential.

Review: Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman’s latest book-length project Norse Mythology frustrates me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of Norse myths, placed in an order that’s at least nominally coherent, stretching from the beginning of the world to its ending in the disasters of Ragnarok. Generally, it focuses on Loki, Odin and Thor; Loki’s exploits in particular provide the backbone for what little continuity the stories have, although there is a general sense that we are supposed to read these characters as logically consistent people, i.e. as we would read characters in a modern novel.

My question, really, is what Norse Mythology is for. I don’t know these stories in detail, the way I know Greek mythology, for instance; but I don’t get the sense Gaiman has changed very much here. What changes do exist are largely cosmetic: the gods’ dialogue is a touch more demotic than we might expect; things are occasionally conceptualised in modern terminology (“oxygen-rich” air pumps through the bellows of the dwarf Brokk). These are changes clearly geared at making the stories relevant and accessible to a modern audience; breathing new life into them, as it were. But it’s jarring to read such modernising touches set against a backdrop of casual misogyny and transphobia which does more to date the myths than any amount of archaic diction ever could.

And, actually, none of this misogyny or transphobia is particularly necessary to the structure of the myths themselves. Thor’s discomfort at posing as the bride of the ogre Thrym in order to get his hammer back: why not use Loki, who’s already there in the scene, as a foil to make Thor ridiculous in his fragile masculinity? Loki’s anger when people mention how he gave birth to Sleipnir in the form of a mare: just leave it out! Sif leaving a council of gods in order to show her friends her new hair: again, just don’t mention it! At the beginning of the book, in the creation of the world, we meet the giant Ymir, who is both male and female at the same time. Gaiman uses the derogatory pronoun “it” to refer to Ymir; if we’re talking about relevance, how simple would it have been to use “they” instead, a real pronoun that actual non-binary people use? None of this is substantially changing the meaning of the myths; they’re just – interpretations. Looking at the stories in a different light. Which is, surely, the whole point of retellings.

Or, say that for whatever reason you don’t want to remove the patriarchal slant that lies in the myths’ backgrounds. In that case, why not lean into their archaism? This is my second major problem with Norse Mythology: it has no sense of grandeur, of majesty, of darkness lurking in great pine forests or the passes of mountains. The gods in these stories are remarkably unheroic figures, forever being tricked by Loki or by an ogre somewhere – I’d argue that this is partly a result of presenting them as psychologically consistent characters without doing any extra characterisation work, and partly a result of Gaiman’s middle-of-the-road prose, which renders even Ragnarok unimpressive.

The thing is – this is Neil Gaiman, right? Isn’t he supposed to be the king of dark fairytale, of making old stories new, of drawing meaning out of the night – according to his personal branding, anyway? Why, then, is Norse Mythology so boring?

Ultimately, what I want from a retelling, and what Norse Mythology utterly lacks, is a sense of vision. I want to know why the author is retelling this particular story; why they think it’s relevant now; what they see in it that makes it worthy of our attention, today – whether that’s a mood, a set of themes, a central character. I want a thesis, not a half-hearted attempt to modernise the surface of stories that leaves their old and destructive prejudices intact. Norse Mythology frustrates me because it represents wasted potential. There is so much in these old stories that could be made darkly, delightfully new. Gaiman has missed every opportunity to do so.

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second in her Lady Trent series, which follows the eponymous naturalist around her steampunk-inflected alternate world in search of dragons of various types and sizes. In this case, Isabella (not yet a Lady, and not yet a Trent – these novels being positioned as her memoirs) is headed for Bayembe, an analogue of an African country where colonial interests and the ambitions of neighbouring countries are contributing to a tense political situation – which Isabella and her companions of course get caught up in. As a result, they find themselves descending into the Green Hell, a tropical jungle/swamp that’s impossible to navigate or even survive without the aid of its indigenous people, the Moulish.

A key theme of this series, it seems to me, is exploration. Of course Isabella is a heroine made in the mould of colonial explorers like Indiana Jones or Jules Verne’s intrepid adventurers in novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth; but whereas those protagonists ultimately seek to export imperial European values around the world, Brennan, aware of the pitfalls and false assumptions implicit in such an approach, is much more interested in exploring social alternatives to life in Scirling, her Britain analogue. Far from seeking to impose Scirling values on the people they meet in the course of their researches, Isabella and her companions choose to assimilate instead. Often this is more about convenience than anything else; gaining the favour of local people means they have greater freedom to study dragons. But it’s notable that Isabella is staunchly opposed to the use of violence, unlike her colonial literary forebears.

So, for instance, Isabella and her companions live for a time among the Moulish, who have little use for a concept of individual property, given their nomadic lives and how easy it is to replace the objects they do use from the materials in the forest. Later on in the novel there’s also a good example of how spiritual beliefs shape worldview and, in a way, reality: believing Isabella to be cursed because of a series of mishaps she’s suffered in the forest, the Moulish press her to take part in a purification ceremony in which she clears the air with anyone she’s wronged. Among other things, she admits her true motives to the Moulish and hashes out a longstanding conflict with one of her companions, the working-class Thomas Wilker. Although Isabella sees the ceremony as superstitious nonsense, participating only in order to keep peace with her hosts, it works: the party encounter fewer setbacks and everyone trusts and respects each other more. The point being that living among the Moulish and participating in their customs opens up social possibilities that don’t exist in Scirling society.

There are other points of difference from Scirling culture whose social implications are explored in varying detail: for instance, while staying in the palace of Bayembe’s king Ankumata, Isabella and her female companion Natalie are required to seclude themselves away from the rest of the court during menstruation. While Isabella chafes at this restriction, she discovers that the other women of the court see it as a kind of holiday, as they don’t have to do any work during this period. And we learn that the people of Bayembe and its surrounding countries trace inheritance down the female line, not the male – as a single woman Isabella presents an interesting opportunity to Ankumata’s son, given that if he married her Scirling custom would allow him to pass property down to his children, which he couldn’t do under Bayembe tradition. That last struck me as an interesting look back at empire, a reversal of the imperial gaze: if Isabella, a member of an imperial nation even if her outlook isn’t especially colonial, benefits from exploring social possibilities beyond Scirling, then the nations subject to her gaze can explore back, as it were, turning Scirling’s patriarchal social norms to their advantage.

But the most important work of exploration here is not external but internal. Isabella and her companions Natalie and Tom are all three of them working out modes of being that run counter to what’s expected in Scirling society. Isabella is a woman in a patriarchal society trying to figure out how she can be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right; Tom is a working-class man trying to break into a scientific field dominated by the middle and upper classes who look down on him for his origins; Natalie is exploring her sexuality, specifically her lack of it, and navigating conflict with her family around her resistance to marriage. In pushing against what’s expected of women and working-class people in Scirling society, each of them is trying to reimagine it as a place in which they can achieve their full potential – so their exploration of different societies around the world is an outward reflection of this personal, internal struggle.

Which brings us to the inescapable fact that, despite its respectful treatment of the Moulish and Bayembe societies, despite the presence of developed, interesting characters like Ankumata (whose leg braces are a rare example of positively presented disability aids in this sort of fiction) and the half-Moulish Faj Rawango, The Tropic of Serpents is still an Anglocentric novel; it’s still told from the perspective of empire. As Electra Pritchett points out here, a character like Ankumata or Faj Rawango could never be the protagonist without making it a different sort of story; the memoirs of a Victorian naturalist are always going to centre an imperial perspective. Isabella, Natalie and Tom may be exploring different social possibilities but they are not doing so from a neutral position; they are benefiting from the social insights they gain ultimately to enrich empire and empire’s goal of knowing the world through science.

This is a limitation of the subgenre Brennan’s working in rather than a limitation of this specific novel; but it is a limitation all the same. Identity politics aside, the novel itself is not particularly nuanced or complex – it follows a single narrative thread linearly through to its end in serviceable but not brilliant prose; rereading offers no overlooked delights. It’s a reasonably entertaining tale with a diversity of characters to recommend it, and I think in the end that’s all it strives to be – it’s not something that’s seeking to overturn the genre at a stroke. That’s fine! Not everything can be truly revolutionary. But this isn’t a book I’ll be returning to, I think.

Review: The Raven Tower

The Raven Tower, multiple-award-winning author Ann Leckie’s fifth novel and first foray into fantasy, is, like her much-decorated Imperial Radch, focused on questions of political power and language and the intersections between them. It’s set in a world populated by a multitude of gods who can only speak the truth, which is both the source of their power and their weakness: if a god speaks something which is not true, and they are not powerful enough to make it true magically, they die, their power siphoned away by the impossible effort of reshaping the universe.

The narrator of the novel is one such god, a rock called the Strength and Patience of the Hill, telling the story of its early interactions with humans and its involvement in a trade war between the cities of Ard Vusktia and Vastai, which face each other across a strategically important strait. Interleaved with this narrative is a story set some centuries after that war, also told by the Strength and Patience of the Hill, in which the Lease’s Heir Mawat is summoned home to Vastai, expecting to find his father the Lease dead or about to be so, only to discover that his uncle Hibal has usurped the position of Lease and his father is nowhere to be found. This is particularly worrisome for all involved given that the Lease of Vastai is a sacrificial position: the incumbent gains power in exchange for his eventual sacrifice to the Raven, the god who now protects Vastai, Ard Vusktia and the country of Iraden. With the Lease potentially unpaid, will the Raven forsake Iraden, leaving it to the mercy of the warring peoples on its borders? The main player in this strand of the narrative is not Mawat but Eolo, his aide, a prudent, intelligent, loyal man who’s determined to find out what’s happened to Mawat’s father and what kind of game Hibal is playing.

That the whole thing is narrated by a god – who, remember, cannot lie – means that this is a story in which language and its role in shaping reality is foregrounded. Our narrator regularly uses circumlocutions like “may or may not”, “here is a story I have heard”, “this is what I think happened” to avoid speaking dangerous untruths – a constant reminder that what we are reading is necessarily mediated through a single perspective; our only access to Vastai and Ard Vusktia is through the words of the Strength and Patience of the Hill; it is effectively creating that world through language. The way in which even the truth-value of language is malleable is aptly illustrated in a piece of propaganda related by the Strength and Patience of the Hill, a tale told by the Raven concerning events that our narrator has already told us about. The Raven’s tale is exaggerated and skewed to place him in a favourable light, but in its essentials it’s basically true; it has to be, as being told by a god. Truth as expressed in language is a complex and malleable thing; words come with contexts that inflect statements even when they’re not explicitly spoken.

The Raven Tower continues Leckie’s interest in non-standard pronoun usage as a way to enact power through language. The Imperial Radch of her science fiction trilogy is genderless, which Leckie represents by using female pronouns for all her characters; this genderlessness is enforced on conquered cultures that do recognise more than one gender, a particularly insidious form of colonialism that’s marked by language alone. Which is to say that semantics matter, especially when it comes to identity-based social constructs like gender. In The Raven Tower, the Strength and Patience of the Hill addresses the novel’s lead Eolo as “you”, guessing at his thoughts and emotions from his reactions. Not only does this serve to further reinforce the subjectivity of the god’s narrative, it also (as Liz Bourke points out at Tor.com) draws attention away from the I of the novel, and thus from questions like “how does this god know so much about Vastai?” and “what are its motivations?” until it’s much too late for the characters to do anything about it. The Strength and Patience of the Hill, true to its name, works in secret from both characters and readers.

The semantics of gender are important here too: Eolo is transgender, a fact that most of the people who know about it accept, so it’s not really a Thing as it might be in another, less thoughtful fantasy novel. However, there’s an interesting moment towards the end of the novel which I think ties into the novel’s emphasis on language and power: an enraged Mawat is about to storm into the House of the Silent, a place reserved for the women who serve the god of the silent forest that lies in the south of Iraden. Eolo point-blank refuses to enter (“Only women can go in there. I’m not a woman.”), to the confusion and rage of Mawat: “I never said you were…I’m going in there.” The cisgender Mawat has presumably never run the risk of being misgendered, a fact which gives him the confidence to break gender-based social taboos; whereas, for Eolo, semantics and social constructs are much more important to his ability to be read as male. Here again we see language constructing reality, and, more specifically, the importance of semantics in constructing gender.

None of these ponderings on truth, semantics and the role of language in constructing power are exactly new: there are plenty of stories about places where fiction is banned, or lies are illegal; about unreliable narrators and the malleability of reality. The world Leckie’s built is quite an interesting departure from the standard Fantasyland thanks mainly to the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s scientific enquiry into the way its power works, but overall I’d say The Raven Tower is a solid, thoughtful book rather than a great one. There’s plenty here to think about, but nothing to set the world on fire.